The most overemphasized aspect of basketball is Xs and Os. Very seldom does game strategy have much to do with the outcome, as teams are usually incapable of making tactical shifts on the fly and often reluctant to try.
Except for the Indiana Fever's Lin Dunn, who in the 2012 WNBA playoffs, has produced some of the most successful strategic and tactical postseason adjustments of any coach at any level, men’s or women’s.
Don't let the Tennessee twang and her Will Rogers-like aphorisms deceive you -- Dunn is one heck of an Xs and Os coach. An insider who knows the veteran coach well dropped the dime on her: Dunn is constantly drawing up plays. She likes nothing better. Pick up any book Dunn has been reading and you're likely to find a play she's been diagramming scribbled in the margins.
And she's had plenty of opportunity to bring that coaching acument to bear in this year's playoffs, as injuries, size and talent limitations have made the Fever the apparent underdog in every round. First, she made two dramatic lineup changes in the opening series, inserting undersized Erlana Larkins at the post and the more consistent (than Shavonte Zellous, at least) Erin Phillips at shooting guard. The maneuver worked brilliantly, catching the Atlanta Dream off guard, and the play of the two new starters propelled Indiana past Connecticut and into its second WNBA Finals.
There, the dream was supposed to die, especially after Katie Douglas went down early in Game One. But that loss wasn’t nearly as critical as it appeared to be, as Dunn then discovered her quicker perimeter defenders gave heavily favored Minnesota fits –- and that 42-year-old Taj McWilliams-Franklin just couldn’t keep up with the much younger Larkins.
Granted, the Lynx rebounded in Game Two on their home court, but only after the Fever had built an early lead and then seemed to fade from exhaustion.
So what could Dunn do in Game Three? With both Douglas and relief sharpshooter Jeanette Pohlen out, her options were as limited as Tammy Sutton-Brown’s shooting range, so the unexpected was pretty much out of the question, right?
Wrong. Dunn had another ace up her sleeve, plus a couple of jacks. The ace was the Ace of Surprise. Who in their right mind, after all, would match up 5-7 Fever point guard Briann January against 6-1 Minnesota wing Seimone Augustus?
In retrospect, of course, it makes sense. What sets Lindsay Whalen apart at the point is her strength, and January can’t measure up to that. But Erin Phillips can. In fact, the tough little Aussie might be even stronger than Whalen, and she’s just as quick. That left Zellous to guard Maya Moore, but why not? In both the January-Augustus and Zellous-Moore matchups, the quickness edge went to Indiana.
Now the obvious counter would have been to take the taller Augustus and Moore to the block –- and that might have been possible, even given the disdain with which both those players treat posting up –- but that takes a little practice time to polish. And since Cheryl Reeve wasn’t expecting January to guard Augustus (it had been the stronger Phillips before, who can use her strength to keep Augustus from getting great position), she didn’t prepare a post-up-Augustus package.
So Augustus hung out on the perimeter, January denied her the ball, and then harassed her unmercifully when she got. Augustus wasn't quick enough to dribble around January, so the talented Olympian all but disappeared from the game.
Zellous, who’s playing at a mental level she’s never shown before, did the same to Moore, and meanwhile Phillips outmuscled and out-quicked Whalen.
Again, posting up January would seem to have been the perfect option. But who could fit that assignment? If Taj McWilliams-Franklin went away from the basket to pass the ball to the block, Larkins would hang back and help January. And Rebekkah Brunson can do a lot of things, but making post entries isn’t one of them.
And speaking of Mama Taj, after a rejuvenation in Game Two, she looked every day of her 42 years Friday. She was the last one up the court, and the only way she could have kept contact with Larkins was radar.
Dunn did two other things that were unexpected. First, despite a very limited rotation, she decided to push the tempo at every opportunity, hoping, as Reeve said at a time out, to cram it down Minnesota’s throat. Given all the injuries, logic would suggest that the Fever should slow the tempo -- the strategy had come within one point of working for the Seattle Storm in the opening round, while a fast-paced running game had seen the Los Angeles Sparks swept in the Western Conference Finals. But in Game Three, the Fever did just the opposite, relentlessly pushing the pace, and the Lynx were not ready.
Finally, every time Minnesota inbounded the ball from the sideline, Indiana played a zone – and for whatever reason, it befuddled the Lynx. Since the Fever didn’t stay in the zone, Minnesota couldn’t get comfortably into its zone attack, and it seemed like the Lynx wasted almost every possession against it.
In the vast majority of games, such coaching maneuvering accomplishes little. Most of the time, the team with better players wins. Or the team that has a bunch of players playing well wins. This time, the team with the smarter coach won the game. Cheryl Reeve is no coaching slacker, either, but this time, she got outfoxed by the wily veteran who's been at it more than 40 years.
And now all Lin Dunn needs is one more rabbit, and the state most closely identified with the sport of basketball will have its first professional basketball championship since 1973.
What color that rabbit will be, only Lin Dunn knows –- but you can bet Cheryl Reeve would give a lot to find out.
- Defensive dominance puts Fever one win away from first WNBA championship
- Fever on doorstep of 1st WNBA title
- Augustus, Lynx even series with Game 2 victory
- Minnesota wears down Indiana in Game Two
- Lin Dunn leverages the matchups into Indiana win over Lynx in WNBA Finals opener
- The Lynx have to be favored to make it two WNBA titles in a row -- but Indiana has championship fever